Director Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel, “Little Women,” makes Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 film with Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst and Christian Bale, a somnolent memory.
Gerwig’s film begins with Saoirse Ronan, playing the impatiently ambitious Jo March, racing down a New York street — eager to show a publisher her first serious story. He does a quick edit, recommending a rewrite, telling her to make sure the heroine is either married or dead before it ends, and we are thrust into the world of the March household.
Alcott’s novel, a coming of age story about the four March sisters, is set at the end of the Civil War. Father has been away for a long time, and their mother Marmee (played with warmth and a quiet strength by the always welcome Laura Dern), keeps a tight hold on this irrepressible bunch. The March family comes from good stock, but there’s never enough money and of this they are constantly reminded by their great-aunt March, who is very rich. Meryl Streep gives this small role her very best 19th century Anna Wintour (“The Devil Wears Prada”).
There’s Jo (Ronan), whose boisterous plays keep the girls and the neighbors entertained while she dreams of being a real author. Meg (Emma Watson), whose opportunity to attend a debutante ball leaves her dreamy-eyed, just wants to marry and have children. Beth is played by Australian Eliza Scanlan, whom you may have seen in the HBO series “Sharp Objects.” Beth, you may recall, is the quiet, fragile one who contracts scarlet fever which weakens her heart. And then there’s the youngest, Amy, who is usually in trouble. Florence Pugh, an English actress who has garnered attention for her leading role in 2016’s Brit film “Lady Macbeth,” plays both the young as well as the older Amy. She’s the one who ends up marrying Laurie, the handsome grandson of their wealthy neighbor Mr. Laurence.
One can’t say enough about the difference between Timothee Chalamet’s Laurie, and that of Christian Bale. Though he was more adventurous when he was with Jo/Ryder, whom he wanted to marry, Bale’s Laurie would never be able to keep up with her character.
Chalamet’s brief body of work demonstrates an ability to see the eccentricities, real or imagined, in a character and use them to bring a character to life. Look at his work in “Call Me By Your Name.” In the same year as he made “Little Women,” he made “The King,” another period piece about King Henry V. Not Shakespeare’s version that Kenneth Branagh was so eager to make, but something more historically accurate.
Chris Cooper (Lone Star,” “Lonesome Dove”) plays Laurie’s grandfather, neighbor to Marmee and her girls. Magically aged, with white hair and the period’s popular mutton chops, Cooper’s character is content to speak volumes with his crinkly smile.
Gerwig’s adaptation is the seventh, the first was a 1917 British silent film. George Cukor made the first ‘talkie’ with Katherine Hepburn. There’s not much anyone can tell most people, particularly women, about Alcott’s book, it’s always been popular childhood reading. Ronan received a Golden Globe nomination for playing Jo. And though she missed winning, her performance won’t be forgotten. If I had a complaint about the film, it would be Gerwig’s decision to fly back and forth between time periods. But you will get used to it.
See you at the movies.
Toni Clem is a Paris resident and has been writing Deja View for more than 30 years.